Chicago is poised for a comeback from the pandemic because of spending growth it has already seen after carefully managing its reopening, top mayoral advisors said Monday, even as they confronted the elephant in the room: downtown security.
Deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development Samir Mayekar and former White House chief of staff Sam Skinner were prime movers behind the roadmap to economic recovery released by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in early July.
But, since that time, downtown Chicago, River North and Lincoln Park were hit by a second wave of looting more devastating than the first that, once again spread to commercial corridors on the South and West Sides.
It shook peoples’ confidence in Chicago to the core and left downtown businesses and residents feeling unsafe.
During a virtual appearance before the City Club of Chicago, Skinner didn’t wait to be asked about the second round of looting and the damage it did to Chicago’s ability to reverse population losses and attract second corporate headquarters.
He anticipated the question and confronted it head-on.
“I want to take another crack at a question I think will probably be coming. That’s safety and the violence that occurred. I want [you all] to know that the mayor addresses it as her No. 1 issue right now. To make sure that she is doing everything she can. Chicago Police Department, federal agents, local law enforcement throughout the region all working together,” Skinner said.
“Some of this was very organized. It was organized criminal activity that took advantage of demonstrators and they’re gonna be dealt with. It is a top priority of the mayor right now. She’s on top of it. She’s bringing in the very best people that she can. Getting all the help she can from other places that have been through this. We recognize that’s an issue that’s on everybody’s mind.”
Lightfoot’s $750 million Invest South/West plan to rebuild 10 impoverished inner-city neighborhoods will not come at the expense of downtown, Skinner insisted.
“We’re committed to all of Chicago. There’s no one area that can get more attention than the other. Resources are limited. We’re spreading them as best we can,” Skinner said.
Mayekar went further.
“We’ve been tremendously focused on making sure that we keep downtown, that our commercial corridors are vibrant. But we have been just as focused on making sure that our neighborhood commercial corridors are safe. That they’re vibrant, that we’re promoting equity in how we distribute city resources,” he said.
“We fundamentally reject that there’s a trade-off between downtown and the neighborhoods because we are absolutely in this together. The resource allocation and the focus of this administration, which is based on equity, recognizes that Invest South/West can be successful as can a plan to really ensure that downtown comes back from COVID even stronger.”
The downtown workforce has been slow to return. Many businesses are allowing employees to work remotely until January. Others plan to wait until there’s a safe, widely-distributed vaccine.
Asked about the future of downtown offices, Mayekar acknowledged companies “may not want to extend a lease” during this “time of crisis.” But they’re in no mood to cancel their leases, either. They’re in wait-and-see mode.
“Many companies are looking to expand space. There was this trend [of] kind of cramming more people into an open office concept. You might see some trends away from that, given the challenges of the pandemic. But there’s this kind of acceptance of remote work and tele-work, which could lead to slightly more percentages of [people] working remotely,” he said.
“But what we’ve heard is people do want to get back to the office. There’s an intangible benefit of being in-person. … The doom story of cities has been told many times over the course of the past few centuries. And cities have always been resilient. … We know those intangibles of being together and the importance of social interaction will be back one day.”
Skinner served as U.S. transportation secretary under former President George H.W. Bush.
He made no attempt to belittle the monumental challenge facing Chicago-based United Airlines, American Airlines and the other commercial carriers.
That’s even though Mayekar said Lightfoot remains fully committed to the $8.7 billion O’Hare Airport expansion project she inherited from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“The airlines are facing the biggest challenge in their history really. Bigger than they faced after 9/11, as big as that was,” Skinner said.
“People aren’t traveling. They’re reluctant to travel. And capacity is at 10-to-15 or 20% of what it was.”